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How Levi’s and Outerknown Reclaimed Hemp from the Hippies

Rare is the San Francisco party where Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss, isn’t accosted by “some hippie” extolling the wonders of industrial hemp and demanding to know why the denim giant isn’t doing more with it.

“The answer is always, ‘Well, just look at yourself hippie,’” Dillinger told Rivet with a sigh. “Hemp has traditionally shared many of the same tropes as burlap. It’s perceived as uncomfortable, it’s rough, and it’s not always a friendly fiber to wear.”

With its uneven hand and poor natural elongation, industrial hemp is often a mercurial fiber to work with. (It also should not be confused with its notoriously psychoactive cousin, which is a chemically different strain and far more fun at parties.) “If you took a denim loom, put conventional hemp on the warp and tried to turn that loom on, it would shake itself apart,” Dillinger said. “So in addition to it being an unpleasing fiber in subjective terms, it is also a destructive fiber if you try to move it through the conventional cotton supply chain.”

But the times, as they say, may be a-changing.

This month, Levi’s Wellthread program collaborated with Outerknown, the eco-friendly lifestyle label founded by champion surfer Kelly Slater and designer John Moore, to offer consumers for the first time a new breed of “cottonized” hemp from Europe that feels just like regular cotton. The details are closely guarded, but the story goes that in the course of its research, Levi’s found fiber specialists who were able to transform the corticated stalk of the hemp plant into a “little puff of cotton.”

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“When we first saw it, it had never been spun before,” Dillinger said. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is enough like cotton and different enough the hemp as we know it. It’s not a twig, it’s a puff. It’s the thing we need.’”

The denim maker knew it hard to start small—and get things right—before scaling up, which is why it decided to use Wellthread’s “lab for sustainability” as a proving ground for the new fiber using a methodology called research through practice.

“We could take a small order, move it through the supply chain and really study the impact to make sure that we’re promoting an idea that can be executed without putting the bigger business at risk,” Dillinger said. “We didn’t want to tarnish the perception of sustainability as problematic or ugly or limiting, so we were very careful about [how we approached it].”

Levi’s ongoing relationship with Outerknown—the spring/summer line is the brands’ fourth outing together—offered the perfect small-batch showcase for the cottonized hemp. Luckily, Moore didn’t need persuading. “At Outerknown, we’ve always been fans of hemp and its use in clothing,” said Moore, who serves as Outerknown’s creative director. “We’ve worked with hemp-cotton blends in our tees, pants, shirts and sweats since the beginning.”

And as it turns out, the hippies were right all along: Hemp gives a lot for very little. Growing in just about any kind of soil, it thrives without fertilizers or herbicides. The crop uses half as much water per season as cotton and can rely on rainfall for hydration. Besides providing quick, bountiful yields, hemp is “one of the strongest fibers in the world,” Moore said. Clothing made from it, he noted, will last longer after each wear, resulting in less textile waste.

By replacing 30 percent of the cotton with cottonized hemp, Levi’s and Outerknown were able to slash the water footprints of their embroidered trucker jacket and 511 slim-fit jean by roughly a third—not insignificant savings for a cotton-heavy company working to minimize its agua use on an increasingly thirsty planet. And while the technology to make cottonized hemp is still fairly new, Dillinger said, it only has the potential to grow.

“When we started out we were cautious, and we were running a little slow, but what we found was that we were able to get those looms up to nearly 100 percent efficiency without any substantive fabric flaws,” he said. “This is coming off the loom as handily as any 100 percent cotton denim. It’s a pretty remarkable change in form from the hemp that we knew.”

The last time Levi’s dabbled in hemp, it was two decades ago for a limited collection called Levi’s Red, which went to town with an array of what Dillinger calls “alternative materials.” He still has pieces from that period, though he describes the hemp ones as “boardy, stiff, a little bit shiny.”

Now that cottonized hemp can serve as a viable alternative to cotton, however, Levi’s has fewer barriers to overcome. Right now, the denim firm is paying a small premium for the Outerknown pieces because the volumes are small, but the plan is to “rapidly expand” cottonized hemp into the broader assortment. “We have no intention of walking away from it after one season as we have in the past,” Dillinger added.

Not that most people would be the wiser. Unless it’s pointed out to them, even the tree-huggers may not be able to tell where the cotton ends and the hemp begins. That’s a good thing, in Dillinger’s opinion.

“Hemp is losing that crunchy, granola, poncho association, and it’s simply becoming a smart, soft, friendly alternative,” he said. “Now we can say to that hippie, ‘Hey I’m already wearing hemp, you just don’t know it.”